Teen shows spirit despite life's bumps

Riverside High School cheerleader Justine Parker stands on the sidelines last Tuesday before the start of the state championship semifinal soccer game against Umatilla.<br><I>Staff photo by Sarah Britain

Justine Parker is someone who knows how to find the joy - even when she's being accidentally slammed to the ground or is facing months of chemo treatments.

The indomitable teen was in fine form recently during Riverside High School's annual homecoming pep competition. A representative from each class attempted to whip fellow students into a fevered frenzy of support for the football team.

Standing on the shiny hardwood and speaking into a microphone, Parker threw herself into her speech, exhorting her classmates to get loud in support of their beloved Pirates. According to plan, three girls dressed in football jerseys smashed through a paper sign located behind Parker.

That's when everything went awry.

"I was standing too close to the sign," Parker said. "I got slammed to the floor so hard - I just got taken out."

She popped back up with a bright smile, ignoring sharp pains emanating from hip and knee.

"She acted like nothing happened," said James Town, Parker's boyfriend. "She kept going."

Parker's leadership teacher, Shane Fritz, watched from the stands, marveling at the girl's moxie.

"Another person might be mortified," Fritz said. "Not her."

Parker, her school's student body president and homecoming queen, displayed the same just-try-to-keep-me-down spirit during a bout with leukemia diagnosed in 8th grade. She still remembers the night she first realized something was wrong.

"I went to a football game and got a hug from a really big guy," she said. "That night, I woke up crying - I thought I'd broken my ribs."

Instead, doctors diagnosed acute lymphocytic leukemia, which sent her life into a temporary tailspin. Her parents, Tim and Heidi Parker, whisked her to Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland.

Parker, though extremely sick, found something positive in the situation.

"I'd pulled a prank and I was grounded for forever," she said, grinning. "Then, I was rushed to the hospital and everyone forgot about that."

Chemo took the starch out of her for a while. Eventually, she came back half days and now she's back to glowing good health.

Fritz remembers Parker tenaciously threading her way through those days.

"She was big-eyed and pale and went through a period of baldness," Fritz said.

Her friends were loyal, wearing bandanas and hats along with Parker in a show of solidarity.

Cancer, Parker said, took her out of the typical teenage drama and made her look at life differently. She doesn't do much halfway anymore.

"It's go big or go home," she said.

Her friend Cherie Guenther, also a senior, said Parker is supercharged with energy, but is also extremely smart and responsible.

"If I forget something, she has it," Guenther said. "She's like a mom."

Maribel Torres, Parker's cheer coach, has a laugh in her voice when she talks about Parker.

"She's spectacular," Torres said. "She's something else."

Parker, the squad's captain, is enthusiastic, energetic and innovative, Torres said, coming up with crazy, out-of-the-box ideas. One such idea involved inviting the school's wrestlers to the squad's stunt practices. The group currently lacks male muscle and the exposure might spark some interest, Parker thought. Torres gave her permission and they will soon put the idea to the test.

Parker, currently the squad's only non-Hispanic member, isn't shy about exercising her marginal Spanish and is often heard yelling, "Vivan los Piratas" - go Pirates.

Not surprisingly, Parker's pep talk during homecoming was a success, despite her being slammed to the ground.

"She ended up winning it," Fritz said.

Besides her undaunted spirit, the teacher said, Parker won because she tried to draw in the entire gym full of students, not just the senior class.

"She kept sight of the big picture," she said, "that we're all Pirates together."

Parker hasn't yet chosen a college or decided on a career path, though she said it will involve "stuff that will change the world" and figures she'll someday move to the jungles of Africa.

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